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Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life

24 May 2018

Danse MacabreDanse Macabre by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book more than 20 years ago, and wasn’t very impressed with it. It was old even back then, so why read it again now?

I was moved to read it again because several months ago I blogged on Stephen King‘s 70th birthday, and said that some of his monsters were convincing and others not (Stephen King is 70 | Khanya)). Brenton Dickieson commented that I had misunderstood some of the monsters. and so I re-read It to remind myself about the monster in it.

I wasn’t altogether convinced. and so began reading a series of books about horror literature to see what they had to say abut monsters in particular, and we also discussed this a bit at our monthly literary coffee klatsch. And so I came back to this book.

What does Stephen King have to say about monsters, his own and other people’s?

In this book he deals mainly with the period 1950-1980, and nearly 40 years have passed. King himself has written many more stories featuring monsters since then, and so have a lot of other people. His own views may also have changed.

According to King there are three main types of monster in “horror” literature:

  • the Vampire
  • the Werewolf
  • the Thing without a Name

He uses three 19th century horror novels to typify these. The Vampire, of course, is Dracula. The Werewolf is Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Thing without a Name is Frankenstein.

But then there is the mother of them all, the Ghost Story, which was so common in the 19th century. If anything typifies the 19th-century ghost story it is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

King (1982:79) makes a further division:

All tales of horror can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will — a conscious decision to do evil — and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning.

I’m not sure that these systems of classification work all the time, or even most of the time. King himself went on to write stories that cut across both systems.

What is the nature of a monster anyway?

As King and others have noted, one kind of monster is a physically misshapen creature. In the period King writes of, such “monsters” often appeared in circus side-shows — dwarfs, bearded ladies, people who were unusually short or tall, fat or thin. People paid to go and see them, and King sees this as one of the functions of the horror story. When we see people with unusual shapes, we can be thankful that we are “normal” and it gives us a measure of “normality”.

But in fantasy literature generally monstrosity is a symbol of evil, of twisting the good out of shape. So Tolkien’s orcs are misshapen, deliberately twisted by their master. Shelob is a monstrous spider, monstrous because of her size.

But while Frankenstein’s monster indeed has no name, it is also, like the Vampire, a revenant, something returned from the dead. It is created by the free will of Victor Frankenstein, but develops a will of its own and so becomes, from a human point of view, an external evil.

And this happens in one of King’s own later stories, Pet Sematary.

Warning, possible spoilers

In this book there is a mixture of external evil in the form of the Wendigo, the wild spirit of the untamed woods, and the grieving father who tries to get his son back from the dead, and does that of his own free will. So at one level there is the classic zombie story.

Zombies, like vampires, are revenants, corpses returned from the dead. The difference is that vampires return of their own free will, but zombies are reanimated by the will of the living. And that applies to the composite monster created by Frankenstein too. The “thing” in Pet Sematary has a name, the name of the son who dies, so it doesn’t fit neatly into King’s classification system.

Several chapters in the middle of Danse Macabre suffered from its being so out of date. King described horror films and TV shows. I never saw most of the films, and during most of the period King deals with we didn’t have TV in South Africa, so I had no chance of seeing them, but even in countries that did have TV, no one under 50 is likely to remember them.

The book has two appendixes, one with what King regards as the better films of the period 1950-1980, and one with a list of  the better books.

Some of the books and films he mentions, or fails to mention, are quite surprising, however.

The film Horror Express, made in 1972, was well within the period that King writes about, and yet I could find no mention of it in King’s book. It even starred such classic horror actors as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Among the books he mentions is Watership Down by Richard Adams. I never thought of that as a horror tale. But Adams did write at least one horror story — Girl in a Swing. But perhaps it was too late for King’s period, though only just.

What follows appears in my blog post but not in my Good Reads review because it strays from a straightforward review of a book into what it is about monsters that interests me.

I suppose my take on monsters is shaped by a Christian outlook and worldview.

There are monsters in the Bible. Some, like Rahab, are only hinted at (Isaiah 51:9-12); others, like the monster from the sea and the monster from the land in Revelation 13, are described in some detail.

The Anglican catechism used to describe a sacrament as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Monsters, whatever else they may be, are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace.

Stephen King at his best seems to get this. As I noted in blogging about his birthday Stephen King is 70 | Khanya:

Pet Sematary is Stephen King’s zombie story, though he doesn’t use the word zombie in it, perhaps because zombies belong to another culture. But it is not the Wendigo or the zombies that are at the centre of the story, but the temptations of the human heart. In that sense it is like some of the writings of the Desert Fathers about demonic assaults and temptations, transferred from the desert to American suburbia.

In his Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine G.B. Caird says that the monster from the sea (in Rev. chapter 13) represents the power of the State, while the monster from the land represents religion supporting the state (specifically at that time, the Roman religion of emperor worship). He qualifies this, however, by saying:

But it must not be thought that John is writing off all civil government as an invention of the Devil. Whatever Satan may claim, the truth is that ‘the Most High controls the sovereignty of the world and gives it to whom he wills’ (Dan iv. 17). In the war between God and Satan, between good and evil, the state is one of the defences established by God to contain the powers of evil within bounds, part of the order which God the Creator had established in the midst of chaos (cf. Rom xiii. 1-7). But when men worship the state, according to it the absolute loyalty and obedience that are due not to Caesar but to God, then the state goes over to the Enemy. What Satan calls from the abyss is not government, but that abuse of government, the omnicompetent state. It is thus misleading to say that the monster is Rome, for it is both more and less: more, because Rome is only its latest embodiment; and less, because Rome is also, even among all the corruptions of idolatry, ‘God’s agent of punishment, for retribution on the offender’ (Rom. 13. iv).

The monsters are both external and internal. They roam the world, but they also enter our hearts. In this case, the temptation is to try to solve all problems by politics, but what is wrong with us that can be solved by politics is not all that is wrong with us.

And if one characteristic of monsters is their deformity, then that is how we saw the monster of Apartheid. Evil does not exist independently of good (as H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters seem to suggest). Apartheid was monstrous because it was a deformation, a twisting of the good. As the Oyarsa of Malacandra said to Weston in Out of the silent planet:

I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly, and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind Oyarsa in your brain.

That is the most succinct description of apartheid that I know, of its monstrosity and deformity. That is what it did, and that is how it was set up by the Bent One.

And now we have groups like AfriForum trying to summon Apartheid from the grave, like a zombie, to blight our lives.

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